Platform for Railway Signaling

Who's driving the train?

Who’s driving the train?

 Most of us in our adult life strive to meet the highest quest possible, that is living up to our childhood dreams.  I wanted to be an engineer and make things since I was in grade 5. I was one of those kids who takes toys apart to see how they work (and most never got put back together)

My heart told me I was to work with trains.  I could barely afford a train set.  I watched in amazement when seeing a steam engine run churn its way down the center of the city near my home like a bellowing behemoth.  We would jump aboard and hitch a ride for a few blocks. We were young and unaware of the danger.

As I grew up, I instinctively learned that these being wonderful creations could release great destructive power when ‘good trains go bad ’. I have since witnessed the aftermath of a VIA train going through a switch turnout at full speed and killing and maiming its innocent passengers. I have also seen the burned-out town at LAC Megantic, when a runaway oil-filled train burst into flames and took out 10 city blocks and devastated the lives of the entire town folk.

I look at these tragedies and wonder why it happened and why hasn’t someone done something about it. I wanted to do something about it.

Isn’t it somebodies responsibility to safeguard the public from atrocious accident that these rolling time-bombs that threaten our lives?  The US has responded by mandating PTC (Positive Train Control) and unifying the ways trains talk together and to improve safety by minimizing the human element, since human error accounts for about 80% of all accidents.

Train control and safety systems are available but what good are they when smaller railways cannot afford them?  Most railway operators say those kinds of accident I mentioned will never happen to them, and most are right.  

Most railways will not do anything until a disaster hit, then race around trying to get a solution planned to avoid a repeat of the accident or to avoid a heavy fine. After the flames die down, so does the vigor and eventually it succumbs to be placed on the back shelf - until the next disaster.

After any major accident in North America, I receive a flood of calls, which lasts a few weeks then goes quiet again. That’s human nature.

Argenia is a smaller company and cannot compete with well-funded large well-established companies directly. So what is to become of the entrepreneurial companies that fuel new invention and fuel the economy?  These smaller firms can produce some astonishing technology at surprisingly low cost but need support else the ideas die. They need support!

After all, doesn’t the industry need safer trains? Is the killing of innocent and unsuspecting passengers to be forgotten? Is it fair to the passengers when their collective fate is in the hands of a single fallible human driver?  Can any human be expected to operate a dangerous machine flawlessly forever with no backup safety systems in place?  Do you really know who is driving your train?

I knew the technology existed that could be applied on-board train and bring this solution to all railways worldwide. I jumped in with both feet before I really knew how deep the water was.  I found that the cost of inventing technology is a mere portion of the true overall costs. After a design is built, the issue of testing is a bigger cost. There is a method called hazard analysis, where you anticipate each failure mode and assess the probability of occurrence.  Once all failures modes are identified and covered off with more sophisticated technology, the task is not done. The next step is that you must prove that you handled every conceivable failure event, even those that are so improbable. This activity is called certification and must be done by a recognized independent third party. Only then can a system be called safe.

As it is proven by historical accounts, that most accidents are caused by derailments due to over-speed. The second is train-on-train collisions, by trains running into a stopped or slower train ahead or with a train on the wrong track. Some of these are due to poor communication, or a track switch in the wrong position or a misread or malfunctioning traffic signal. No human can be perfect in reading signals or mis-hearing voice commands. Probability dictates that eventually an error will occur, it’s a matter of time.

There are many examples of train wrecks that should provide the impetus to move forward with a safety strategy?

Argenia has developed technology to combat the over-speed problem. An intelligent on-board control system that is programmed with all the speed zones and will not allow a train to travel faster that allowed, else a warning is given. On failure of the driver to slow down, the system will force a train stop.

The collision avoidance sub-system works by having a central database collect all train location and speed data from all the trains through a wireless communications system, then distribute this information to all trains. Each train knows exactly where the train ahead is.  Secondary to this, the braking profile of every train is determined and programmed into each respective train. With this information, the on-board system can assure a train does not get closer to a train than the distance it needs to stop.

This system is smart so it adapts the safe separation based on the speed of both trains. As a train starts getting closer to the one ahead, the system will notify the driver to slow down, by dropping the speed limit on the display. The operator will see that his allowable speed has been reduced and will slow down, preserving the safe distance. If he does not, the system will warn the operator and eventually stop the train if the driver does not comply.

 Argenia spent considerable time and invested heavily in the system and believe in it whole heartedly. Our train control, or CBTC (Communications Based Train Control) is much lower cost, smaller and more efficient than other offerings at twice the price. It uses the most modem components and a sophisticated software to achieve remarkable performance.

Running a train facility is not easy. Scheduling many trains on too few tracks means trains must be totally aware of the surrounding traffic to avoid collisions. Knowing the exact position of each train means headways (separation between trains) can be lowered and stay in control, thereby allowing more trains on the track. Given that freight trains need two miles to stop, a high degree of situational awareness is required.

The value of reputation and public awareness play heavily on the purchasing decisions. To sell such a safety -critical system traditionally requires an enormous PR program, so people get to know the company and its capabilities. Going to expensive trade shows and advertising in magazines adds considerable cost to the product. In this modern age, social media, websites and blogs and seminars are useful to getting the message to the right people directly at lower cost.

We at Argenia promote the idea of consultation and collaboration. The customer works with us as we become part of his team. We design. implement and commission the system using much of the customers employees so they become trained and proficient at running and maintaining the system themselves.  Argenia is always nearby to assist and provide backup services and support. We also are connected by the cloud to monitor the daily train activities and spot potential problems early. This model saves the customer a great deal of money since he is utilizing and training his own workforce and is not paying for Argenia to maintain a large duplicate workforce

My advice is to find a good consultant to work with and analyze your safety risk and how a CBTC  system mitigates them. Don’t wait until the accident happens and then create a system out of panic or desperation.

 Argenia provides a free consultation service to examine how such a system can help your trains run safer. More information and technical specs are available on our website.

May all of us realize our childhood dreams and get the chance to work towards and achieve those  goals.   


Written by Brian Southon, P.Eng.

President and founder.

 Argenia Systems Inc.



1 comment

  • Great article. Wish you great success in your efforts. Its great to see smaller companies making contributions to our safety.


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